LOS ANGELES: A US judge jailed the so-called “Millennium bomber” for 37 years Wednesday for plotting to bomb Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve 1999, but rejected calls for a life sentence.
Algerian al Qaeda member Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested as he entered the United States driving a car packed with explosives, was previously jailed for 22 years, but the sentence was quashed, twice, the last time in 2010.
In passing a sentence of 37 years, US District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle rebuffed the prosecution’s calls for Ressam to be jailed for 65 years to life.
He highlighted Ressam’s initial cooperation with prosecutors, including testifying against co-conspirator Mokhtar Haouari and identifying 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui from a photograph.
“This case provokes our greatest fears,” said his 18-page sentencing order, posted online.
“Many, including the federal government, believe that Mr Ressam is a continuing threat and he should never see freedom again. But fear is not, nor has it ever been, the guide for a federal sentencing judge.”
Citing federal sentencing guidelines, he said the court was setting a sentence that was “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.”
Ressam was arrested in November 1999 as he crossed the US-Canadian border with a carload of explosives that prosecutors said he planned to detonate at the busy Los Angeles airport in a spectacular eve-of-Millennium attack.
He was convicted of nine counts connected to the plot in April 2001, but sentencing was delayed until 2005 as US authorities sought his cooperation to help uncover information about other global terror suspects.
Ressam was eventually jailed for 22 years, but his sentence was vacated after he successfully challenged his conviction on one of the charges, relating to declarations made to customs officials, on technical grounds.
In January 2007, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld his appeal and ordered the entire sentence be sent back to a lower court for resentencing.
A judge upheld the 22-year sentence in 2008, prompting a new appeal by prosecutors, resulting in the sentence being quashed in February 2010.
Ressam initially cooperated with prosecutors in the years after his arrest, including helping them identify Moussaoui, a key figure in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
He said he had met Moussaoui at a training camp in Afghanistan, and provided “the government with a first-hand account of the inner workings of al Qaeda,” the judge noted.
Ressam stopped cooperating with prosecutors in 2004. In a statement earlier in the long-running case, Ressam explained that his decision to cooperate was made under duress -- and denied that he had ever killed anyone.
“The US attorney stated that I had killed women, children, etc. In fact I did not kill any human being. I am against killing innocent people of any gender, color or religion,” he said.
Prosecutors said they were weighing Coughenour's ruling, and did not rule out another appeal.
“Ahmed Ressam is a convicted terrorist who sought to kill innocent people gathered in a busy airport at the holidays. Only good fortune and alert officials disrupted his horrible plot,” said US Attorney Jenny Durkan.
“This case demonstrates the strength of our nation. We afforded a man who sought to do us the greatest harm the full due process of the law.”She vowed to ensure a “just result for the American people.”